The Secrets of MBA Admissions

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by Evan Forster and David Thomas on

An excerpt from the best-selling book, The MBA Reality Check

B-school admissions committees are unexpectedly holistic in the way they review candidacies. Every element matters—from your grades, to your GMAT, to your résumé, recommendations (recs), and essays—but they matter in ways that are often counterintuitive. Getting into business school is a dramatically different ball game than getting into med or law school, which is often just a numbers game (you either have the grades and test scores or you don’t).

I’m not going to waste your time describing how to beef up every element of your candidacy, however. This book assumes you’re not a high school senior mapping out an extremely farsighted game plan for getting into graduate business school. I’m going to breeze past the fixed elements of your candidacy that you have very little control over: where you went to college, how well you performed, what classes you took, whether you studied abroad. And I’m certainly not going to spend time teaching you GMAT tricks: There are far better-qualified people than I to do that. The rule of thumb is a score of 700 or better if at all possible. There, I said it.

Every admissions committee has its own way of assessing candidacies. Some are rigorously quantitative, rating each element on a scale of 0 to 5 with the highest cumulative scores getting the fat envelope. Others are much more subjective, allowing one or two extremely compelling elements of a candidacy (such as outstanding leadership accomplishments) to overcome other weaknesses (such as a 640 GMAT). What is important for you to understand, however, is how all the elements of your candidacy work together.


No matter what particular process an admissions committee uses, a single simple framework can help you understand the mindset of the admissions officer—and once you understand the framework, you will find it easier to let go of the candidacy-killing mistakes so many excellent applicants make.

LET’S say a school receives ten thousand applications from which to build a class of a thousand—that’s a 10 percent success rate.

The first thing the committee worries about is: Can the applicant do the work? That’s where the stats come in. Applications with GMATs and transcripts that clearly don’t demonstrate academic ability—and there are no hard metrics, though GMATs below 600 and transcripts below 3.0 are arguably rules of thumb—may go straight into the trash. BAM! We just weeded out two thousand candidates in one fell swoop. (Don’t freak out if you fall into this category—later on I’ll explain how other factors can overcome below-average stats.)


The next thing the committee worries about is: Is this applicant ready for business school? Has she had sufficient professional or organizational experiences to make the most of an advanced business education and be able to contribute to classroom discussions and study groups?

Candidates without any demonstrated leadership potential or thin professional experience, or who have merely met expectations without standing out relative to their peers, get drop-kicked at this stage. Exit another three thousand applications.

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Air Time - Comments
  • William

    There is no difference. Do the start up. One tenth difference (from Harvard nonetheless) means nothing. Gpa is actually hardly noticed, so long as you have a solid GMAT score and good work experience. The start up could really be cool and learn great lessons.

  • MBAHopeful

    Is there much of a difference between a 3.2 and 3.3 undergrad GPA in terms of MBA admissions? I’m a senior at Harvard right now and trying to decide if I want to load up on classes this semester or whether I should instead spend the extra time to focus on a start-up opportunity I am passionate about.

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